Common weed, nutritious food, powerful medicine.
In springtime dandelion’s sunny flowering faces appear all at once. And they are EVERYWHERE- pioneers infiltrating cracks in sidewalks, grassy lawns, well-tended gardens, abandoned city lots, mountain meadows. As an herbalist and wild foods forager, I have come to view them as an amazing gift instead of a weedy curse. They have taught me that sometimes our most powerful remedies are common, the ones growing under our feet.
Other names: spupi’hLiqWadi (Twana), lion’s tooth, blow ball, Taraxacum officinale
Identifying dandelion: For such a common weed, dandelion is easy to misidentify. Many look-alike plants have similar leaves, but dandelion leaves are hairless. They generally have toothed edges that gave the plant its French name, “dent de lion.” Leaves and hollow flower stems grow directly from the rootstock. There is only one flower per stem, verses other branching look-alike plants. Root, leaves and stem all exude a milky white sap. The fruits form “wish balls.” Individual seeds are carried away by parachute like hairs with the slightest breeze or breath. They have been known to travel on the wind as much as five miles! Dandelion flower is pollinated by over 90 insects. It is in the sunflower or composite family.
Left: harry cat’s ear. Right: dandelion (notice leaves are NOT hairy)
Where it grows: Dandelion has followed in the footsteps of pilgrims for millenia. The genus, with over 250 species, grows all over the world. As most of us know, dandelion thrives just about anywhere. What isn’t as well known is that it improves soil quality. Roots draw minerals up from deep layers of earth – concentrating them in the whole plant. When the plant dies back it deposits these minerals into the soil. Roots also aerate hard packed soil and create pathways for water to enter.
Dandelion contains: an impressive list of nutrients. Leaves are high in vitamins and minerals including Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Iron and vitamins A, B and C. Dandelion is higher in vitamin A than any other garden plant. Roots contain inulin, mucilage, latex resin, and teraxacin.
When and how to harvest: Every part of dandelion is useful. I harvest leaves, flowers and roots in the season when they are most vital. In early spring leaves quickly shoot up and gather sunlight. This is when they are most tender and can be eaten fresh, cooked, or dried for tea. As the leaves age and are exposed to sunlight, they can become intensely bitter. To preserve leaves for tea, harvest on a dry day. Use a rubber band to bundle small bunches then hang to dry, or dry leaves in single layers in baskets. Store in a glass jar for up to a year.
Buds appear at the base of the leaves in early spring. These can be eaten fresh, cooked or pickled. Buds open into flowering heads. These are best gathered for food or medicine on sunny days when they are dry and fully open, usually in April or early May. Drying the flowers is nearly impossible since they go to seed quickly.
Root medicinal properties vary a little from season to season. In spring, they are more bitter and have optimal medicine as a digestive stimulant. In the fall, they are sweeter and higher in a carbohydrate called inulin, which is excellent for diabetics. Be mindful that when you dig dandelion even the smallest piece of root left in the ground will grow into a new plant.
If you are looking for dandelion root’s anti-inflammatory and liver cooling properties I recommend using it fresh by eating it, tincturing it or making vinegar. The dry root tea is nutritive, good for digestion and detoxifying. To dry dandelion roots, dig up in spring through fall. Wash thoroughly. With a long piece of string, wrap each root a couple times, let out 6 inches of string and wrap another root, making a long dandelion chain. Hang until completely dry. Use clippers to cut into small pieces and store in a glass jar. Drying the roots whole prevents you from losing the white sap called inulin. I have had poor luck at drying roots in baskets due to molding but if you have a wood stove it might work just fine.
Leaves – Dandelion leaves can be a gourmet green if you know when to harvest and how to prepare them. They are most delectable in the early spring before flowering. As they are exposed to more sunlight and growth slows, they become intensely bitter. Harvest tender young leaves from the inside of the plant for best flavor. I pick young leaves and add them to salads. While they taste a little bitter, they add flavor variety as well as dense nutrients. Dandelion leaves have three times more Calcium, Iron and Vitamin A than spinach! Leaves can also be steamed, sautéed or boiled and then incorporated into dips, casseroles and soups. Boiling bitter leaves in a pot of water for about 5 minutes helps to remove some of the bitter taste.
Buds – The key to eating dandelion buds is getting them early when they are still tight little buttons close to the base of the plant. I like them best when the sepals have just unfolded. I pinch off the sepals from the base of the bud because they are a little bitter. Buds can be pickled, added to sautés, soups, etc.
Flowers – What most of us think of as a single dandelion flower is actually hundreds of flowers growing together on a single base. Dandelion flowers are high in Vitamin A and have a surprisingly sweet and mild flavor. The base of the flowering head and especially the green sepals (they look like tiny leaves) are bitter. You can easily pull the flowers off and use them straight or in recipes. I find them a little dry when sprinkled heavily on salads or other raw dishes so I prefer to add them to cooked foods like quiche, pancakes, muffins and fritters.
Dandelion Bud Pickles
I got this recipe from my friend and esteemed herbalist Joyce Netishen. They are delicious on salads or straight up!
Early spring dandelion buds
1/3 cup sweet onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
apple cider, brown rice or white wine vinegar
tamari or soy sauce
Place onions and garlic in the bottom of a 16 oz. mason jar. Fill the jar with dandelion buds so there is 1-2 inches of clearance on the top. Cover buds with a mixture of 25% tamari or soy sauce and 75% vinegar. (For me this was about 10 ounces). Cap and let sit for at least 2 weeks – no refrigeration necessary. Stir every couple days to ensure all buds are covered with vinegar.
Dandelion Drop Biscuits
My husband was delighted to find something tasty that we can do with all those flowering dandelions in our yard! This recipe is quick, easy and completely satisfying.
2 cups all purpose flour
2 and ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon dried herbs such as rosemary, marjorum, thyme, basil or chive
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup milk
½ cup dandelion flowers – pulled off the base
Preheat oven to 450. Do not let butter melt. Do not overwork. Batter should be moist and sticky but not smooth. Use a spoon to form about ¼ cup scoops. Place a couple inches apart. Bake until the bottom is browned and the edges are just starting to brown, about 12 minutes.
Dandelion Flower Fritters
Pick recently opened flowers and remove the green sepals from the base of the flower. Even weary wild foods consumers come around when they taste these crispy poppers.
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 eggs beaten
1/2 cup milk
2 cups fresh flowers
Sunflower oil or sesame oil for frying
Mix flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. You can add herbs like basil and rosemary to this if you choose. In another bowl, blend eggs and milk. Heat a skillet with about ¼ inch of a high-heat tolerant oil like sunflower or sesame. Dip flowers in egg batter then coat with flour mixture. Fry until golden the flip to other side. Drain on paper towels.
Fine corn meal can be substituted for flour. If you have small flowers, you can make a batter by mixing all the ingredients together. Mix half batter and half flowers, and then sauté in oil to make “flower pancakes.” You can use this recipe to make fiddlehead, blue elder flower, big leaf maple flower, wild onion flower or fireweed shoot fritters.
Fall dandelion roots can be sautéed in stir fry and other dishes or can be finely chopped and sprinkled on the top of soups or rice. I do this for medicinal purposes rather than as a taste preference.
Dandelion is one of the oldest documented medicinal herbs. It was intentionally imported to the Americas on the Mayflower ship (around 1620) as a food crop and panacea (a cure all). It was quickly incorporated into American Indian medicine. Dandelion has been an official medicine all over the world. It was part of the United States Pharmacopea from 1831-1926 and the National Formulareae from 1888-1965.
If I could sum up the medicine of dandelion I would say that it helps to break up congestion and to support eliminative function throughout the body. It can be safely used over a long period of time. If used consistently, it has the ability to shift long-standing imbalances.
Dandelion root supports the liver, an organ that is responsible for breaking down dietary toxins, drugs and hormones. It is used for acne, psoriasis, hepatitis and other conditions where improved liver function is needed. Dandelion root supports elimination through stimulating bile, and therefore acts as a gentle laxative. It also stimulates peristalsis (the rhythmic contraction of the intestines).
Another remarkable quality of dandelion root is that it helps the liver to preferentially make high quality fats (HDL) verses poor quality fats (LDL and VLDL). These fats are building blocks for cells in our body, and their quality determines the integrity and resilience of our tissue. Good quality fats lead to healthy tissue, which leads to good overall health.
Dandelion root contains up to 25% inulin – a compound that the plant produces to store energy. Inulin has become a popular addition to foods and medicinal products for several reasons. It helps our bodies to absorb minerals including calcium and magnesium. It is a prebiotic that builds healthy flora in our guts. Inulin also helps to provide food energy without raising blood sugar. In other words, it provides some of the energy of carbohydrates without the need for insulin. This makes dandelion an ideal plant for diabetics. Also, diabetics are typically deficient in minerals and dandelion helps to replenish these.
The leaves of dandelion are used as a simple and safe diuretic, meaning that they help the kidneys to excrete excess water in the body. Dandelion root aids the body in excreting excess uric acid. High levels of uric acid cause tissues to become more inflamed and reactive, potentially leading to allergies, hay fever and gout. PMS, arthritis and hives can be greatly improved with dandelion for this reason.
Dandelion flower’s high nutrient content makes it a popular addition to facial cleansers and creams. The flower oil is used for inflammation, sore muscles and arthritic joints. The milky white sap from the plant is used to get rid of warts. Over the coarse of the last 5 years I have heard over a dozen first hand success stories about dandelion helping warts to fall off. It is important to dab the wart with sap once or twice a day for a couple of weeks.
Tea – For leaf tea use one tablespoon of herb per one cup of boiled water, steep 15 minutes. Drink up to five cups a day. For root tea combine one teaspoon per cup of cold water in a pan and then bring it to a boil. Simmer about ten minutes, then strain. Drink up to three cups a day.
Infused flower oil – Gather flowering heads on a sunny day. Pull flowers from head base and let them wilt in a basket for half a day. This will help to reduce their water content. Place flowers in a glass jar and cover with extra virgin olive oil. Make sure the oil covers the flowers entirely. If flowers are sticking about the surface they will likely mold. Cover and place in a warm spot like a sunny window, next to a heat source or outside on warm days. Occasionally open the lid and wipe off any condensation that has formed on the underside. This will help remove water from your oil. Let sit about 2 weeks. Strain with muslin cloth (see cottonwood post for photos on how to do this). Let the oil settle for several hours. Water will fall to the bottom. Pour into a clean glass jar, leaving the water part behind. Label and store in a cool dark place for up to a year. Rub on sore muscles or arthritic joints. Use is salves or as a nutritive addition to creams or body oils.
Tincture – I only tincture the roots. This is an easy way to use dandelion for supporting liver health, digestion and detoxification but it contains alcohol and this is not appropriate for everyone. Vinegar can be used as a substitute. Chop cleaned fresh roots in small pieces. Place in a jar and cover with 80-100 proof vodka or brandy. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Label, including the date. Let sit for two weeks, shaking it occasionally. Press with muslin cloth and store in a glass jar in a cool dark place. Tincture will last 7-9 years. Do not worry about the milky substance in the tincture that falls to the bottom. This is inulin, and you should just shake the tincture before you use it. Use 30-80 drops depending on usage 2-3 times a day.
Vinegar – Most of the medicinal compounds in dandelion are soluble in vinegar. Prepare using the same method as the tincture but use brown rice, apple cider or other types of vinegar with at least 5% acetic acid. Use ½ to 1 teaspoon 2 times a day. You can use this in salad dressing or on other foods.
Elixir of movement!
Purify, push, stir us
from the sleepy place of winter,
bring us the light, the vigor
to carry our full purpose.
Cleanse our eyes so we can see,
give us vision so we can know
what needs to be done.
Move the obstacles that block the way.
In your rich presence I stretch,
loosen the stuck places.
I surge up, am infused with new energy
as your green fists of leaves
move toward the light
after a long winter of dreaming.
-Elise Krohn, 2005